Seven Psychopaths: Terrible People Being Terribly Self-Aware

Seven Psychopaths, that is the title of this film. I wanted to see this movie before I knew absolutely anything about it, I didn’t know the director or even anyone in the cast; though I, admittedly, had a hunch of what it would be about based on what I had gleaned from the title (there will be a few psychopathic people in the film). This intriguingly named film is directed by Martin McDonagh, the director of In Bruges, a black-comedy masterwork. Colin Farrell (also the star of In Bruges) headlines a fantastic cast that includes such perennial screen psychopaths as Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, and Tom Waits, with the cast rounded out by Abbie Cornish, Kevin Corrigan, Harry Dean Stanton, Gabourey Sidibe, and Olga Kurylenko.

Now that's a cast. And also a Shih Tzu.

Now that’s a cast. And also a Shih Tzu. And a rabbit.

Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) is a screenwriter who is unable to finish, or even really start, his screenplay preemptively titled “Seven Psychopaths.” Marty is also an in-denial-alcoholic, though I suspect he really just doesn’t want to admit that he has become a cliche to both his best friend and his girlfriend, a lovely, if a bit shrewish, Australian (Abbie Cornish). His aforementioned best friend is Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), an out of work actor that has been making ends meet by stealing dogs for the inevitable reward money. His partner in this venture is Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken), who is using his share to pay for his wife’s cancer-treatment. A stolen Shih Tzu sets all three on a collision course with a mobster named Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson) and may finally provide Marty the inspiration to finish his screenplay. If he isn’t dead at the end.

Colin Farrell, so frequently underrated as an actor due to some mediocre blockbusters, is one of the absolute best around at playing a man at the end of his rope, and on the verge of snapping. As the closest thing to a tether keeping the rest of the cast of Seven Psychopaths grounded, Farrell chooses to keep his performance relatively quiet and subtle: he provides the film the anchor it so desperately needed. Colin Farrell is truly the ideal actor for Martin McDonagh’s unique brand of black-comedy, and there is not an inconsiderable amount of potential for future collaborations between the two, potentially similar to the Viggo Mortensen and David Cronenberg pairing with a dash of self-aware comedy thrown in for good measure.

That is the only appropriate expression when talking to Tom Waits.

That is the only appropriate expression when talking to a Tom Waits character.

Sam Rockwell, the perpetually unhinged and always magnetic actor, portrays Billy Bickle, a down and out actor that just wants his friend to be happy. And for the movie that is his life to end both his way at a location of his choosing. That is correct, Billy is the character that is well aware that he is living in a movie. This a conceit that can be fantastic and enormously entertaining when done well (Scream) or atrocious when not done well (the sequels to Scream). Rockwell’s character is one of the titular psychopaths, but, despite the literal numbering of said psychopaths on the screen, we the audience can never be entirely sure who is really the insane one in a given situation.

Christopher Walken does some of his best work in years playing Hans, a man shaken to his core repeatedly throughout the film, yet never anything but eerily calm and completely accepting of what has transpired. Walken is also one of the psychopaths (as if you couldn’t guess). Harrelson as the gangster is delightfully cruel and able to switch from lighthearted comedy to a deranged killer on a dime (he’s so very good at that). There are many moments within Seven Psychopaths that mine laughs from Harrelson’s brutal character being ambivalent towards killing and hurting anyone (even his own men and girlfriend), but is languishing and desperate over the kidnapping of his beloved Shih Tzu. Harrelson is a scene-stealer in an ensemble of people who have made careers out of stealing scenes.

That seems like a wacky camping trip.

That seems like a wacky camping trip.

Abbie Cornish is good as Marty’s girlfriend, even if she is just there to be pretty and inadvertently start him off on his blood-soaked quest of self-discovery. Olga Kurylenko plays the girlfriend of Woody Harelson’s mobster, that happens to be seeing Sam Rockwell’s Billy on the side. Kurylenko is sexy as always but she’s another wasted actress and I honestly don’t think we see her in anything but her underwear. These two actresses are both quite good and are severely underused in the film (or maybe they were simply too recognizable for their roles), though I am not entirely sure I can call that a fault. The film Seven Psychopaths begins to strongly mirror the screenplay written by Marty who is called out for having undeveloped female characters used solely for their sex appeal and as soon-to-be corpses meant to motivate revenge. This level of self-awareness later on in the film negates, somewhat, the flaws that I had been noticing in the first half of Seven Psychopaths.

That is one ominous picture.

That is one ominous picture.

Seven Psychopaths possesses the lightning fast dialogue typically associated with Quentin Tarantino and his oeuvre, with an even greater level of self-awareness. This, obvious, influence works well given the narrative focus on crime and criminals and the natural, acerbic wit that all of the leads possess. McDonagh began his career as a playwright and that past experience seeps through into the film: so much of the film is focused on conversations between the leads in various combinations rather than being the typical, more action driven crime film. The pseudo-film-within-a-film aspect is hit or miss, with the scenes reflecting Marty’s writing ably demonstrating his state of mind and emotional state, but it is also something of a hindrance in that it makes the film uneven in parts. But the dialogue is strong enough, that pacing issues are easy to ignore.

Seven Psychopaths is a strong follow up to In Bruges for writer-director Martin McDonagh, who has successfully carved himself a niche after just two features (and a short) with his black-comedy crime films. Colin Farrell anchors a strong cast with a subtle performance amidst the insanity surrounding him. Seven Psychopaths is unlike anything else this year, both for good and for ill.

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